Monday, November 16, 2009

Camping, Cookies and Good Deeds

Growing up I heard a lot of catch phrases from my parents.  Some were more intelligent than others.  Things like, "Eat your dinner, there are starving kids in China (and/or Africa)," made no sense.  If the kids in China wanted it, why had my mom wasted the food by making a horrible science experiment of a meal at our house...and what did that have to do with me?

Another phrase always baffled me as well.  "Be nice to your sister, she is your sister" seemed like an obvious statement, but once again it didn't seem relevant.  My teenage observation skills had shown me most people are mean to their family and nice to strangers, so if they wanted me to be nice to her they shouldn't have pointed out she was related.  Something like, "Be nice to that random girl, she will be your friend," would have worked better.

Even with the mocking of parental authority I have just shown, I did have respect for a few thoughts my parents dumped into my head over the years. While "eat your vegetables" did not make the list of personal mottoes to live by, another phrase did.

My dad said something while I was growing up that will always stick with me.  I have no idea if he said it very often, but he must have said it enough times for me to remember it.  "Leave your campsite better than you found it" was a phrase my dad patterned his life after.  Now before you wonder if we spent my formative years living off the land in random KOA's across the United States I will tell you this phrase is meant to be much more encompassing than just a spot of dirt for your tent.

While it is true my dad always leveled the tent site, cleared dry leaves from the area and reconstructed the fire pit, the phrase was meant more about life than camping.  Being a good citizen is about leaving more than you found and putting value into society, not removing it.

So how can I leave my campsite better than I found it on a regular basis? What is in my power to change?  In reality, quite a lot.

When I was in college I had the chance to see a troop of girl scouts selling cookies in front of a pharmacy.  This may not seem odd, as girls scouts tend to do this every year all around the world.  These girls caught my eye however because it was late in the year, very late in fact.  Being a scout myself in younger years I knew cookies were supposed to be sold March-April, not mid summer.  The other reason I noticed them was the desperate look on their faces.  As I love cookies I stopped to chat.  It turned out the girls were on their annual troop trip.  They had not sold enough cookies to afford the entire trip, but were selling their remaining cookies as they went.  If they sold them all they could finish the trip, if not, they went home early.

Apparently cookie sales had not been going well and they were getting desperate.  At this point you should know I was a senior in college and I had almost no money.  I worked as much as possible, but for a college student in a low paying job that still wasn't saying much.  When I looked at the girls and the slightly frazzled leaders I realized the money to buy those cookies was nothing compared to the relief it would give both the girls and the ladies in charge. So I asked for two.  The girls handed me two boxes of cookies and I smiled at them.  I had meant two cases, or 24 boxes.  I promise the look of joy I received was worth much more than the $72 in cookies.  In fact one of the leaders teared up.  Walking away I had 24 boxes of cookies to give as presents (okay, I didn't give ALL of them away...) and I left those girls in a better position than I found them.  I still smile when I remember that day.

The funny part about the story above is it took me longer to write about it than it took for the actual event. That is probably true with most cases.  Opening a door for a mom carrying a baby, or holding the food tray for an elderly person in the lunch line are simple things we can do.  Picking up the neighbor's newspaper and putting it on their porch before the sprinklers come on or letting someone cut into traffic are easy actions.

You don't need to organize an army of volunteers to build a house (although Habitat for Humanity would love to have you) but you could put the stray shopping cart away in the parking lot so it doesn't hit a car.  You don't have to bake cookies for the entire second grade at your school, but you could write a thank you note to a teacher. Just being aware of the situations around you will give you plenty of ideas.

Now for the confession part of this blog.  I don't always leave my campsite better than I found it.  For the record, I still don't eat all my vegetables either. Sometimes I am a lazy selfish waste of space within society.  But not every day. Some days I contribute, I hope most days I contribute.

Don't feel bad if every campsite you stay at isn't perfect when you leave.  Do your best. Look around you.  Stay aware.  Be grateful for the people before you and conscious of the people after you. There may always be starving kids in China, and my mother still wants me to be nice to my sister. Some things will never change.  Hopefully my dad's motto won't either.

P.S. I would love to hear your "campsite" stories, so add them here!


  1. Funny... my dad always said the same thing... I think it meant more than simply random acts of kindness (although those are really good!!). I think he was referring to a general level of respect for others, and that raises the bar for all of us. Ever get cut off in traffic? Okay, now have you ever been the one cutting someone off? It may seem like a stretch, but the campsite rule applies here too. Leaving the freeway better than you found it can be done by making room for that car, or waiving them in, even if they have already started to move in to your lane without looking. Creating that sense of care for others in a place typically devoid of compassion is a great way to improve the overall situation.

    I think the idea is be the kind of person you would be happy to be one step behind.

    But also, the literal translation is good. I can't tell you how it feels to have planned a group camping excursion, packed the food and the gear just right so that it all fits, waited for the last of your gang to get there, driven for hours into the middle of nowhere, perhaps had to figure out what to do when a fully-loaded truck starts emitting some nasty smoke, overcome the natural obstacles of a grand adventure, and when you finally pull in to your campsite, and the light is falling quickly, you've only got enough time to set up your tents, or get a fire going for dinner, but not both, and then you look over by your trusty fire pit, and it's clean, and a few feet away is a pile of wood the previous occupants left just for me... whew... that feels good. Anybody else taste smores right now?

  2. "Leave your campsite better than you found it" is an old scouting motto.
    Thank you, Juliette Low and parents everywhere, for passing it on and making the world a better place than you found it.